Letter on Immigration Deepens Split Among Evangelicals

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

More than 50 evangelical Christian leaders and organizations voiced their support yesterday for an immigration bill that would allow illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens without returning to their native countries.

The statement marks a deepening split among evangelicals over immigration. It was signed by a mixture of Hispanic and white church groups. But most of the nation's large, politically influential evangelical organizations either back rival legislation that focuses on border enforcement and the deportation of illegal immigrants, or have been silent on the issue.

Hispanic evangelical leaders said yesterday that they have received support from Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim groups, but have been bitterly disappointed by the response of most of their fellow evangelicals, both white and black.

"This is the watershed movement -- it's the moment where either we really forge relationships with the white evangelical church that will last for decades, or there is a possibility of a definitive schism here," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which serves 10,700 Hispanic evangelical churches with 15 million members.

"There will be church ramifications to this, and there will be political ramifications," he said.

In a letter yesterday to President Bush and members of Congress, Rodriguez's group and its allies cited Bible passages that call for the compassionate treatment of foreigners. Specifically, the letter urged "border protection policies that are consistent with humanitarian values," streamlined procedures for reuniting separated families, and an option for undocumented workers to legalize their status.

The letter effectively endorsed a proposal by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The bill combines a guest-worker program with provisions allowing illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes, undergoing criminal background checks and learning English.

Among the signers was World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. But the NAE itself did not sign the letter because its members are divided on how to deal with immigration, said the Rev. Richard Cizik, the NAE's vice president for governmental affairs.

Polls show that about two-thirds of white evangelicals consider new immigrants a burden on society, compared with about half of all Americans who hold that view. On the other hand, Cizik said, most evangelicals realize that Latino immigrants are the fastest-growing part of their church.

"Evangelicals are a lot more sensitive to the plight of immigrants than outside observers might think," he said. "When you put together the biblical mandate to care for the alien and the receptivity of the Latino community to the evangel, to the gospel, you have a sensitivity factor that almost outweighs the traditional evangelical concern for law and order."

Some predominantly white evangelical groups, such as the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, have strongly opposed the Kennedy-McCain bill, labeling it an "amnesty" package. They support a House-passed measure that would concentrate on sealing U.S. borders and enforcing existing immigration laws.

"We think our national boundaries should be respected. That's a biblical principle also," said Christian Coalition lobbyist Jim Backlin.

Many larger groups, such as James C. Dobson's Colorado-based Focus on the Family, have not taken a stand on the issue. Rodriguez, of the Hispanic Christian conference, said his group wants to know why.

"We need to know from white evangelical leaders why did they not support comprehensive immigration reform, why they came down in favor exclusively of enforcement, without any mention of the compassionate side, without any mention of the Christian moral imperatives," he said.

"So down the road, when the white evangelical community calls us and says, 'We want to partner with you on marriage, we want to partner on family issues,' my first question will be: 'Where were you when 12 million of our brothers and sisters were about to be deported and 12 million families disenfranchised?' "

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